Innovation and the ‘Little Guys’: A Q&A with Jason Fagone

In 2007, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis’s X Prize Foundation announced that it would award $10,000,000 to anyone who could build a safe, production-ready car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a single gallon of gas. Over a hundred teams rose to the challenge: hopeful amateurs, serious mechanics, and scientists alike. In Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America, author Jason Fagone followed four of these teams as they planned, built, and raced their versions of the car that could revolutionize the world.

Signature: You've been a writer for a long time, but by your own admission you're not much of a car guy. What changed this for you? When did you get interested in the X Prize? Did you have to do much research to keep up with the technical aspect of the contest? Did you ever feel out of your depth?

JASON FAGONE: I did feel confused at times, especially in the beginning when the engineers were first explaining their cars to me and I didn’t understand the jargon. Even now, there are lots of nuances of internal combustion engines and electrical circuitry that escape me, but the idea was never to try to pass myself off as an auto expert. I hope I come off as a curious layperson. I’m a guy trying to understand the tech in my own head so I can explain it as best I can to people who are like me: people who don’t have car backgrounds but are interested in engineering and innovation and making things.

That’s what drew me to the X Prize in the first place: not that it was about cars, but that it was about finally doing something to solve this hard and important problem of making cars that don’t suck. From an efficiency standpoint, most cars suck. They just do. Given the fact that every gallon of gas that you burn warms the atmosphere a tiny bit, it’s just unacceptable that cars are as bloated and unaerodynamic as most of them are.

The Ford Model T got twenty miles to the gallon. The 2002 Honda Accord sedan I drove when I was reporting this book didn’t get much more than that. The Accord is a vastly better car than the Model T, of course, but it’s not necessarily a more efficient car. The X Prize was saying in this really bold and optimistic way, “We don’t have to accept this ridiculous situation anymore. We can do better,” and I wondered if that was true, if these underfunded inventors and entrepreneurs and startups could pull off this incredibly difficult thing. So that’s what came first – a simple desire to see what happened next. The tech reporting came later.

I asked a lot of dumb questions. The teams were incredibly kind and patient with me. I also had some help from a few smart and generous friends who are automotive experts; they read drafts of the book, corrected some mistakes, helped me make it accurate.

SIG: You spent a lot of time with several different teams. Were they in any way suspicious of you or worried that you might share information with the other teams? How did you win their trust?

JF: By the time I started hanging out with the teams their car designs were pretty much set, so even if I had given them secret intel they couldn’t have done much with it. I tried to win their trust the way I always do when I’m reporting: by putting in the time. I show up, I leave, I show up again. I work long days. I try to show I care about my work as much as they do about theirs.

SIG: I was especially taken with Illuminati Motor Works. A couple of high school sweethearts (Kevin Smith and Jen Danzinger) who set out to build a futuristic car in an old barn seems like a story made for the movies. While it's a charming tale, I'm wondering if that narrative kept the media from actually taking them seriously. How did Kevin and Jen feel about it?

JF: Great question. Yes, for most of the competition no one gave Illuminati much thought at all, and you can see why when you see a picture of their car. On first glance, it looks like some futuristic drawing out of a 1940s issue of Popular Mechanics: It’s got these huge, voluptuous fenders, a long, gradually tapering rear, and gullwing doors like the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” During the X Prize, whenever Kevin opened the car’s hood, you could see this crazy tangle of electrical wires, and at one point there was a water bottle taped in the works to catch some leaking fluid. It just seemed like an absurd vehicle, and I’m guilty here myself. To be totally honest, when I first decided to write about Kevin and Jen, I only did it because I thought they’d make for a good story. I assumed their car would break or their competitors would smash them somehow and then I’d focus on the teams with a real chance of winning, but that’s not what happened. As for how they felt about being humored, Kevin was fine with it – he’s extremely confident and assumed he would show everyone eventually – and Jen couldn’t stand it. Reporters loved the “husband-and-wife” angle and often wanted to talk to her, but she’s shy, and she didn’t like that the focus on her meant that other team members were ignored.

SIG: Some of the people in the book state that the X-Prize challenge is a throwback to a time when Americans "made" things. What do they mean? How have things changed since those times, and do you think that things like the X-Prize can spur another age of industrial innovation?

JF: We still make things in America, but our most powerful and influential products – Hollywood movies, social-media apps, financial instruments – aren’t material anymore. Or they’re gadgets designed in Silicon Valley and manufactured in China.

It didn’t used to be this way. I’m from Philadelphia. This was once a great manufacturing city, a city of craftsmen – the “Workshop of the World” – and then the jobs evaporated to other places where labor was cheaper, and there wasn’t any way to replace them. Today, almost forty percent of the children here in Philadelphia live in poverty, and it’s the same in Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore.

The good jobs are in “knowledge work,” but a lot of the kids don’t have the skills to join that part of the economy. They’re stuck in bad schools, and because the schools are bad, the kids have to take a ridiculous number of standardized tests to prove that the schools aren’t bad, but the tests actually make the schools worse because the teachers have to spend so much time drilling the kids on these stupid, irrelevant test questions. It’s a terrible situation, and I don’t know what the answer is, but what I loved about the X Prize was the way it let people with a lot of different aptitudes have moments to shine.

There are kids in West Philly who can’t write a coherent paragraph, but if you give them a stack of car manuals and a free Saturday, they’ll take apart a transmission and put it back together. The X Prize was a competition where it mattered if you could find a good machine shop. The cars were more like inventions of old – things made by the hands of their imaginers, each vehicle the product of many small improvisations.

SIG: The X Prize competitors were busy working on futuristic car designs, but in some way the wide range of people participating – inner city students, geeky “Star Wars” fans, gearheads, and venture capitalists – reminded me of an earlier age of invention when part-time scientists, backyard engineers, and eccentric tinkerers could make a difference. Has our attitude changed toward so-called amateurs and their contributions? If so, have we lost something?

JF: Well, when you think about an inventor in 2013, who comes to mind? For me it’s a coder in Silicon Valley; someone who’s making a social-media app, maybe. Or maybe it’s Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Musk is a fascinating guy, a very smart and creative guy, but a billionaire: He made a fortune in the dot-com boom. These are elites who can afford armies of patent attorneys to protect their ideas. But inventors in America didn’t used to be elites. They were ordinary people who invented things to get by in a rough place. When Walt Whitman wrote his poem about “You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours / You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours,” he was talking about invention as a democratic ideal, an innate power accessible by everyone. That’s also what excited Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson about invention and about a nation designed to nurture inventors. And the X Prize was an expression of that older ideal, I think. It wasn’t about patents or apps but about people working passionately and collaboratively to solve this hard problem in the physical world. And I think the results show that it worked. Today we’re so used to looking for solutions from billionaires, from Silicon Valley, from Wall Street, but there’s a tremendous reservoir of ingenuity out there that we could tap if we just decided to go looking for it.

SIG: Ingenious is as much about the personalities involved with the contest as it is the vehicles themselves. It seemed to me like a lot of them came to the contest for reasons beyond just creating an energy-efficient car or winning money. I walked away with the impression that they had something to prove to themselves or other people. Did you get that impression, yourself? Did the team leaders have anything in common?

JF: Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation, put it to me like this: “They do it because it’s why they’ve been put on this planet. It’s personal significance. It’s wanting to know their life meant something.” From what I saw, that’s true. It wasn’t really about money or fame, because, honestly, most of the teams lost money. As business deals go, it was a bad one. But there was something about the way the Prize was framed – the optimism of it, the democracy, the appeal to our Promethean powers – that attracted people. And yes, the Prize provided the targets, but the drive to reach those targets came from somewhere else; somewhere deeper.

SIG: I walked away with the impression that the demands of the contest had actually wrecked a few lives: divorces, almost divorces, arrests, job losses. Am I wrong? Is the contest just that stressful?

JF: I think so. It was the kind of thing that just consumed people. They got into it thinking they could just work on the car on weekends, or vacation days, but the contest turned out to be so difficult and grueling that doing it in some halfway sense was impossible. You had to put everything into it, spend every meager resource – time, energy, social capital, cash. And you had to do it for years. This wasn’t some one-off race: This was a three or four-year project for most of the teams – three or four years of being tired all the time, having no money, running on fumes. And in some cases, that took a personal toll.

SIG: Initially, I had assumed that electric car technology would be the centerpiece of the X-Prize competition. Not to spoil things, but the reality is quite a bit different. I found myself reconsidering what the car of tomorrow would really be. Did you come into this with any presumptions that turned out not to be true?

JF: I thought it would be a vindication of the electric car, like you say. And in some sense it was. Over the course of the project, though, I became interested in approaches that are even more fundamental, especially extreme light-weighting and aerodynamic efficiency. You can take any gasoline car and swap out its engine and put in an electric motor and a battery pack, but it’s still the same car. It’s still what the automobile has been in America for decades and decades, which is a heavy box of steel that you smash through the air by force of cheap energy. But if you start from scratch and rethink what a car can be – make it light, make it aerodynamic, use insights from auto racing and the aerospace industry and materials science – you’re ahead of the game, no matter what propulsion technology you use.

Big auto companies mostly aren’t interested in doing this. They don’t like radical innovation. So the job has been left to the little guys I write about, which is insane when you think about it. But the people in this book have achieved incredible things.

SIG: Is there anything you learned from this experience that you'll apply to your own life?

JF : I don’t assume anymore that big companies or billionaires have all the answers, if I ever did.